Skip to content

How do I secure and encrypt an ESXi Boot Device?

It’s time for a talk on Boot devices. No, we are not talking about SD cards, instead, we are going to talk about encryption and security of boot devices!

One trend lately has been to use PCI-E attached RAID controllers for a pair of M.2 SATA/NVMe devices that boot the server. Example Dell BOSS (Great option!). One challenge for some customers is these controllers often lack encryption support.

So first off. Do you even need to worry about this? What is the attack surface of an ESXi boot device?

Securing other keys – If you didn’t use TPMs for caching vSAN encryption keys, in theory, those would be there. This is easy to solve by spending $50 on a TPM, and the keys will be cached there instead.

Gigabyte Accessory GC-TPM2.0 TPM Module Retail : Electronics
You can pay $50 up front, or spend hours of your life in a data center manually trying to add these into a host.

Attestation – You may want to make sure someone didn’t meddle with the binaries, and you can trust the full chain of code used to boot the system including firmware. Secure boot and host attestation require a TPM and cover this. VMkernel.Boot.execInstalledOnly is a setting that will make sure arbitrarily uploaded binaries can’t be executed. Remember you don’t actually have to encrypt the full boot device to protect the binary integrity, this is handled by verifying signatures and UEFI secure boot.

Protecting the configuration file from tampering and or being read – While I find it unlikely anyone is going to physically do anything interesting with my ESXi information (Ohh no, they might learn I use for NTP /s) there are some paranoid customers out there who have hosts in less than secure locations or consider the IP address of their DNS servers to be highly proprietary. Starting in vSphere 7 U2 the ESXi configuration is encrypted by default, and with a TPM the encryption keys will be securely sealed in the TPM. For more information on this see

Summary of a secure boot chain

So with a TPM + Secure Boot + the VMkernel.Boot.execInstalledOnly + TPM sealed configuration encryption a stolen or physically tampered with boot device will not expose sensitive data, or be able to be used to compromise a host.

“Is this enough?”

Personally, I think the above techniques will cover 98% of customer requirements to secure their boot devices and encrypt and sign what matters in a way that someone can’t do anything useful even with physical access to a boot device… For the truly paranoid though I would be remiss to not mention the following ways to 100% encrypt the entire boot device. Note If you go down this path you would still likely want to implement the above steps anyways and will still need/want a TPM, so this is not an “or” option necessarily as anyone this paranoid is going to need/want defense in depth.

Full Device Encryption

But what if my security team is demanding full volume encryption? Well for these cases there are some options.

  1. Buy a RAID controller that supports SEDs.
  2. Look at virtual raid-on-chip systems (VROC) for NVMe devices. Intel VMD is one system that can provide RAID 1 for boot devices of NVMe without the need for an add-in card, and also can manage encryption if SED NVMe devices are used. Note you will still need SEDs, as Intel VMD itself doesn’t do the encryption, just passes off the keys to the out-of-band controller (iLO/iDRAC/CIMC etc).

Generally, you will need external KMIP compliant KMS to make this securely work, but again talk to your server OEM.

Final Thoughts

I don’t claim to be the expert on vSphere Security or all compliance scenarios. I would love to hear your feedback and concerns. I’m on Twitter @Lost_signal.

Other reading: Hat Tip to Anders Olsson for collecting a lot of useful information in securing ESXi boot.